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What if NBA officiating is a feature and not a bug?

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Fans, coaches, and players are up in arms about the state of NBA officiating. Will things ever change?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Mercifully, last night’s #RefWatchParty during the Warriors and Lakers game turned into a non-event. The official NBA referees Twitter account answered questions matter-of-factly and the blowout result meant that there were no meaningful calls late in the game to dissect.

But that hasn’t always been the case with the refs on Twitter. Most notably they called out Chris Webber for incorrect rules interpretations earlier this season, among other Twitter run-ins.

The account’s sometimes-dismissive attitude of criticisms is representative of the growing crisis the NBA faces with its officials. Players and coaches have butted heads more regularly with referees in recent years and several high-profile events this season (Steph Curry pointed out a possible hypocrisy in the handling of the step-back/gather rule, Kevin Durant literally standing out of bounds and touching the ball in a key overtime moment) have shined an even brighter spotlight on the league’s officiating problems. To say nothing of the outcries from fans both in arenas and online.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has a problem and it needs to be addressed. But here’s the catch — the league seems to be perpetually disinclined to actually do anything about the these issues.

They pay lip service to making changes, the last two minute reports being a recent example, but there hasn’t been substantive changes to the way NBA games are called in years. Arguably since replay review was added.

For some reason, we continue with cumbersome replay review systems, arcane traveling rules that allow James Harden to literally jitterbug on stepbacks, and no visible/transparent method for correcting blatant missed calls or abuse-of-authority technical fouls.

An entire playoff series was marred by unconscionably bad calls three seasons ago:

Despite all of these problems, we continue with more or less the same system that has existed for years.

Referee Controversies are a Feature Not a Bug

Here’s a possible insane hypothesis: What if the NBA sees the officiating controversies as a feature not a bug?

Consider: NBA playoff outcomes are more predictable than any other pro sports league in the country. We all know that only three or four teams have a real shot at the championship every season (or only one team. sigh.). That should make it difficult to continue supporting your team, knowing they have little hope for upward mobility in the short term, yet NBA popularity is at a post-Michael Jordan apex.

What if the league views the officiating controversies as a way to counteract the predictability of the outcomes? Fans and coaches/players spend a LOT of time directing their rage at officiating after close losses. The underlying sentiment being that the outcome may have been different if not for the inept officiating. This mindset helps perpetuate the idea that your team is constantly the underdog and also better than the outcomes actually show. Being angry at the officials helps distract from the fact that few teams in the NBA have a legitimate shot at pulling off playoff upsets.

To use a professional wrestling analogy, the NBA is creating a “the money is in the chase” situation. For over 100 years the bad guys in professional wrestling have cheated to win matches enraging fans while simultaneously convincing viewers to come back next week to see if the good guy can dish out some comeuppance.

The NBA has created similar villains by directing rage toward the officials. Fans of 28 teams firmly believe that their franchise is the “good guy” and could be even more successful if not for the meddling officials! Hope and interest are maintained in a league that is otherwise fairly predictable.